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Opium is the dried paste that is secreted by the opium poppy plant. Opium contains up to 12% morphine, an alkaloid, which is frequently processed to produce heroin for the illegal drug trade. The latex paste also includes codeine and non-narcotic alkaloids such as papaverine, thebaine and noscapine. Cultivation of opium poppies for food, anaesthesia, and ritual purposes dates back to the Neolithic Age. For centuries, several large empires used opium, which was the most potent form of pain relief available, allowing ancient surgeons to perform surgical procedures for prolonged periods of time.


Opium is classified as a central-nervous depressant, containing phenanthrene alkaloids morphine, codeine, and to a lesser extent thebaine. In the United States, opium is listed as a Schedule II narcotic, outlawing sale, distribution and purchase by anyone.


Opium has a history of many medical applications. Laudanum was originally the sixteenth-century term for a medicine associated with a particular physician that was widely well-regarded, but became standardized as “tincture of opium,” a solution of opium in ethyl alcohol, which Paracelsus has been credited with developing. Subsequently, laudanum became the basis of many popular patent medicines of the nineteenth century. The standard medical use of opium continued into the nineteenth century. U.S. president William Henry Harrison was treated with opium in 1841, and in the American Civil War, the Union Army used 2.8 million ounces of opium tincture and powder and about 500,000 opium pills.


Opium’s effects depend on how it is introduced into the body. It works quickly when smoked, because the opiate chemicals pass into the lungs, where they are quickly absorbed by blood vessels and sent to the brain. Opium’s effects occur more slowly when eaten or mixed in a liquid, because then the drug has to pass through the stomach and upper intestines, and into the liver before moving on to the brain. The process of digestion weakens Opium’s effects as it passes through the various organs before being absorbed by the bloodstream. Opium highs are very similar to the effects of heroin.

The user experiences a rush of pleasure, followed by an extended period of relaxation, freedom from anxiety, and the relief of physical pain. Opium binds to the brain receptors that search for pleasure-enhancing endorphins and painkilling enkephalins. Because opium floods these receptors, it produces a higher state of pleasure than the body can produce on its own. Opium also inhibits muscle movement in the bowels, leading to constipation, or the inability to have a bowel movement. It works on the part of the brain that controls coughing and can dry out the mouth and the mucous membranes in the nose. The effects of a dose of opium last about four hours.

Similar Drugs

Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid drug synthesized from morphine, a derivative of the opium poppy. When introduced to the body, Heroin metabolizes into morphine. Heroin and morphine are similar to opium in that they cause euphoria, feelings of well-being, sedation, and cause central-nervous and respiratory depression.

Addiction Information

The continued use of opium leads to tolerance, or the need for greater and greater doses of a substance to achieve the same original effect; and dependence, a physical and psychological craving for the drug. Physical dependence occurs when the user begins to experience withdrawal symptoms after the drug’s effects wear off. These symptoms occur because, in the presence of opium, the brain stops making its own pleasure-enhancing compounds. Therefore, the rest of the body adjusts to the presence of the drug and becomes accustomed to functioning under its influence.

Opium Withdrawal

When the user quits taking opium, the body rebounds with a set of withdrawal symptoms that resemble a bad case of the flu. Some people experience goosebumps, which is where the term “quitting cold turkey” came into being. These unpleasant symptoms can last from three to five days, but the psychological withdrawals can last much longer.

Withdrawal Symptoms Include:

  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing or yawning
  • Muscle pain
  • Involuntary motion
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Cold sweats

Opium Overdose

At high doses, use of opium can result in overdose. When people take higher doses, or use opium more often, they run the risk of overdosing. An overdose can kill because users stop breathing and quickly die of asphyxiation.

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